Veli-Matti Karhulahti: Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Games Research – Epistemic Diversity and Registered Reports

From a disciplinary perspective, research on games has always been “interdisciplinary”: a buzzword frequently repeated by funding bodies, research institutions, and researchers themselves. More is better than less, and interdisciplinarity comes with the plural. Some time ago we interviewed the chief editors of leading social science and humanities editors, and everyone identified their journal as multi- or interdisciplinary. At the same time, scientific disciplines are becoming increasingly specialized: field-specific expert knowledge accumulates and summons new disciplines (like game studies). Integration and segregation occur simultaneously—we focus on one thing sufficiently enough to have it as our homebase, but we also dabble with things adequately close, to be comfortably interdisciplinary.

Comfortable Interdisciplinarity is a great starting point, but also kind of having the cake and eating it too: harvesting the benefits without the problems. Interdisciplinarity that pursues collaborative solutions between disciplines that have little in common typically come with numerous problems, including but not limited to:

  • Epistemological differences. When disciplines have different understandings of what knowledge is, it can take a lot of mutual patience to establish common ground.
  • Methodological differences. As disciplines use different methods, interpreting and communicating data (being clear but not dumbing down too much) requires extra effort.
  • Practical & theoretical differences. If disciplines approach phenomena in significantly different ways, entirely new practices and theoretical hybrids may need to be developed.
  • Publication and peer review. Despite claims for interdisciplinarity, journals remain limited in scope and are often hesitant about interdisciplinary work (“monodisciplinary review”).
  • Funding. Interdisciplinarity is expensive, as meeting the criteria of multiple disciplines also means having a team with multiple domains of expertise and resources.

Despite the above, interdisciplinary research can be worth the effort. The world is complex, and it’s not surprising that if we want to understand it, uniting diverse insights may be the only path to progress. Based on my past years of intensive interdisciplinary collaboration, I share two notes that might be beneficial for those who consider pursuing such research.

Epistemic Diversity: respect diversity of knowledge but also challenge it

The very benefits of interdisciplinary research derive from our own limited views of what knowledge and research are or should be. For instance, valuable findings in the humanities (e.g., advanced conceptual or theoretical frameworks) are commonly overlooked in social and medical sciences because they are perceived as lacking empirical validation. Meanwhile, the latter’s empirical findings are rarely cited or even read in the humanities where “positivism” is widely considered an epistemology to stay far away from. Unchaining these limited views can lead to rapid research progress when it allows high-level findings becoming accessible and applicable in new contexts. That said, progress also requires questioning the paradigms and revising ongoing research programs—the benefits of interdisciplinarity manifest explicitly in having our own ABC challenged from a new perspective. Interdisciplinarity works best when we’re ready to both respect and challenge established disciplinary foundations.

Registered Reports: utilize reviewers who support you (instead of annihilating you)

Whereas traditional journal peer review is often an obstacle for getting interdisciplinary research published, there is also a way to turn the tide: by using the Registered Report publication format, peer review becomes a support stone that helps the team to do best possible research. The idea of Registered Reports is that peer review happens not once but twice (before and after the study), and it is specifically the pre-study review that allows external experts to provide support in the design phase. In Registered Reports, what Reviewer 2 would normally call “a critical flaw that deserves a rejection” magically transforms into constructive feedback. When feedback is negotiated before the study has been carried out, authors can improve their plans based on it. Even better, since 2021, it has been possible to use the Peer Community in Registered Reports platform, which is not a journal but a (researcher-driven non-profit) centre for carrying out open high-level peer review in all academic fields. The transparency and omni-scientific nature of Peer Community In yields several benefits for interdisciplinary authors—not least helping us to identify our own biases, which tend to be difficult to admit and fix especially when the study is already done.

While one lifetime remains too short for becoming an expert in all sciences, recent developments in technology and academic infrastructures have made efficient interdisciplinary collaborations possible. Several challenges still make “uncomfortable interdisciplinarity” difficult to carry out in practice—but if your area of research is filled with debates and stuck without proper progress, collaborating with other disciplines might offer solutions.

Author biography: Veli-Matti Karhulahti is an alumni and collaborator of CoE who currently runs an interdisciplinary ERC StG project “Ontological Reconstruction of Gaming Disorder” (2022–2027).

Image: Illustration by David Parkins. Source.

The interdisciplinary work referenced in this essay was supported by the Finnish Work Environment Fund and is ongoing until spring 2023. For details in Finnish, see this link. Disclosure statement: the author is affiliated to Peer Community in Registered Reports as a non-paid recommender (editor).